Iceland in Winter
We chose to go to Iceland in December for our winter holiday for various reasons. The girls were dreaming of a white Christmas. Nick wanted to see the Northern Lights and I always wanted to see Iceland and the diamond beach. Another reason to go in Winter was to avoid the (other) tourists and see Iceland with kids in a slow way. We wanted to stay here, breath it and get to know it over the magical Christmas period.
Is Iceland depressing during winter time?
To tell the truth, that was my biggest concern. Part of me was afraid going to Iceland in December when days are only 4 hours long. I had read about this thing called SAD. After a midwinter month, I can report it’s not as bad as I was expecting. Short days when you can see the sun aren’t such a problem. I guess depression starts when the weather is so gloomy that even when you have daylight, you don’t see anything but grey sky. And in last month we have had a fair number of days like that. The main thing which let us deal with long gloomy days was the local Geothermal swimming pool.
How to Deal With Short Winter Days in Iceland?
The answer is easy. Make the most of them. If we are not sightseeing or out on a road trip, we still get out for a walk, and if it’s rainy, we go to the nearby swimming pool. It’s outdoors, but it doesn’t matter that it’s raining – you are wet anyway. I think the swimming pool and hot tub, more than anything else, keep me happy and free from mood swings.
How Challenging is Winter Weather in Iceland?
When you hear Iceland, you probably think “ice” as the name says. The weather in Iceland in winter is milder than in most parts of Europe. Iceland has mild winters due to the warming effect of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. The average temperature in December is -1°C to +4°C. The temperature in January is -1°C – +1°C. So why do we think about Iceland as a cold country? – perhaps because the summer average is only 10–13 °C.
Why was Iceland Called Iceland?
Iceland was named by Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson. A Viking who arrived here in AD 865. The summer that year was very s, and Flóki didn’t prepare himself or his livestock for the cold winter. All his livestock died. Unhappy Flóki climbed up the highest mountain above his camp and saw a vast iceberg. He named the entire land Ísland or Iceland.
All the Icelandic people are descended from the Norwegian Vikings and Celts from Scotland and Ireland, who were brought here as slaves.
What to do When you Arrive in Iceland?
Rent a car so you can explore Iceland on your own. We use everywhere EasyRentalCar. All main Iceland roads in winter are accessible and if they become unsafe during winter they are closed temporarily. Before going on a road trip, you can check road and weather conditions on this website. Before you open your car door check the wind speed. Torn door hinges are the most common form of hire car damage.
Google maps work well for getting around Iceland in winter. (download an offline map).
Within Reykjavik, you can also get about by bus. Download the Straeto app which includes a route planner and allows you to buy tickets in advance very conveniently. All buses have wifi. If you use the Strateo app but be aware. The app can leave you stranded. All the routes are calculated assuming that you know the names of the locations of all the bus stops. You can’t recall the calculated trip once on the bus because it recalculates a new journey for you assuming you missed the bus. Our top tip – when you have calculated your route in advance, take screenshots of the relevant parts. You can later interpret it with your offline Google map.
Capital of Iceland
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland. Its name means “bay of smokes” (reykr – “smoke (pl)” + vík “bay”). Reykjavik is famous for being the most northern capital in the world. It is by far the biggest city on the island – over 2/3 of Icelanders live in the capital area.
Activities in Reykjavik in December
Reykjavik free city tour
The Reykjavik free city tour is organized by City Walk. The walk itself is about 2km long and lasts 2 hours. The walk is easy but Reykjavik in winter can be cold. The Free City Walk runs 100% on donations from guests at the end of each tour to your guide. You pay whatever you feel like the tour was worth in any currency you prefer. Our guide was Eric and we loved the trip – it was a great way to learn about Iceland and Reykjavik
Whale Museum contains 23 man-made life-size models of the various whale species found in Icelandic waters. The whale replicas hang from the ceiling, are all hand-painted. there is an audio guide tour which is very informative.
- Adults – 2,900 ISK
Children 7 – 15 years 1,500 ISK
- Children below 7 free of charge
- Families 5,800 IS
Famous Hallgrímskirkja church
Hallgrímskirkja church is the largest church in the country, and probably the most famous Reykjavik landmark. It has a 73-metre high tower which you can climb for a 360° view over Reykjavík and beyond. The best time for this is around sunrise but be warned, and it’s cold up there. Entrance is ISK1,000 for adult, ISK100 for kids. Admission tickets are sold in the church shop.
It took 41 years to build the church. Its design was inspired by Iceland nature – some say it resembles a geyser, others that the side wings look like basalt cliffs. For me, it is an unlovely example of brutalist architecture and overuse of concrete.
Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall
This is a very modern glass building dating from 2011. Worth the visit to appreciate its architecture or even just for the views of Reykjavik from the 5th floor. The building design won the Mies van der Rohe Award in 2013. Harpa is the home for lots of concerts and shows and worth a visit in any case
The Pearl (Perlan) is one of the main landmarks in Reykjavík. Perlan is an experience centre with exhibitions, Planetarium, an Observation Deck and a 100 metre artificial Ice Cave. It’s an excellent place to spent a day with your kids. We have been there and we loved it.
Adults ticket 3900 ISK
Kids ticket 1950 ISK
Ticket price – family ticket (2+2) 7800 ISK
Ice skating in the Middle of Town
The ice-skating rink at Ingólfstorg Square is available only from 1st to 24th December. Skating is free if you have your skates, or you can rent skates and helmets for ISK 990 per hour. Great fun for kids and adults alike.
Family Park and Zoo
The Zoo in Reykjavik is small and quite simple, but it provided entertainment for our girls for a few hours. They have seals, reindeer, arctic foxes, and farm animals. A tiny room houses a few “exotic” snakes lizards and insects. Within the Zoo grounds, there is also a great playground. What was the strangest and most interesting for me is that the domestic animals “sunbathe” under artificial lamps to keep them happy and healthy?
Entry to the Zoo
Children 0-4 year – free
Children 5-12 year – 660 ISK
13 year and older – 880 ISK
Outside the paid area there is a Botanical Garden Family Park with free access. Parking is also free and shared with the adjacent ice rink.
Places to see in Iceland in Winter – Day trip outside Reykjavik
Kleifarvatn is the largest lake on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland, Lake is very picturesque especially in winter time. We have been there at sunrise when the lake was frozen and it was an amazing sight.
Krýsuvík hot springs
Steaming volcanic vents and boiling hot springs all set in a range of multi-coloured hills. For me, it all looks like a portal to hell. We have been there twice as we do like this place so much
Golden Circle in Winter
The Golden Circle comprises three of the most popular tourist sites in Iceland; Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, The Geysir hot spring area and Gullfoss waterfall. The route takes you from Reykjavik one way, and another way back to the city, making it into a 300 km loop. The Golden Circle is named after Gullfoss which translates as the Golden Waterfall.
You can navigate this trip on your own using Google maps, or you can book one of several Golden Circle Tours.
Thingvellir National Park
The Þingvellir UNESCO World Heritage Site (the Icelandic letter “Þ” is pronounced “th” as in “thing”)
The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet at Thingvellir. Here you can see clearly how the two continental plates drift apart at approximately 2cm every year with parallel cliffs facing each other and points where new chasms have suddenly opened within the past few decades. Iceland is one of only two places in the world where you can see this happening on the land. The other one is in Africa.
Thingvellir was the site of the world’s first parliament.
The site is free to visit, but parking costs ISK 1,000 for the day – don’t try to escape it – automatic cameras have already caught your number plate as you approach the area!
Haukadalur Geothermal Area – Geysir
The original Geysir (from which the English word geyser originated) stopped erupting a few years ago. Before that, it would shoot hot water as high as 170 metres (recorded in 1845). Currently, Strokkur geyser erupts every 4-10 minutes shooting water up to 20 metres.
The site is free to visit; parking is free as well. There is a gift shop with a restaurant and free toilets.
Gullfoss Waterfall in Winter
Gullfoss Waterfall is truly impressive, especially when it is half frozen – as we saw it for the first time. The falls drop a total of 32 metres in two steps as it flows into a 70 metre deep narrow canyon.
The water comes from the Langjökull glacier with a flow rate of up to 2,000 cubic metres per second.
Access to the Waterfall and parking are both free, and again there is a gift shop with a restaurant and free toilets.
Extras on Golden circle – Secret Lagoon
The Secret Lagoon is a thermal pool located in the small village of Flúðir. The thermal pool keeps at a constant temperature of 38/40 °C. Secret Lagoon is one of the top 5 lagoons in Iceland, still less known than Blue Lagoon but it’s growing as a competitor and alternative to in my opinion a bit overrated Blue Lagoon.
Entry fee from 1st January 2019 – ISK 3,000 for adults, kids under 14 enter free when accompanied by a paying adult.
The best things to see in Iceland in December – South Coast of Iceland
Glacier Lagoon – Diamond Beach
Right beside a glacier lagoon lies the Diamond Beach. The Icelandic name of this black sand beach is Breiðamerkurssand. Its known as the Diamond Beach because of the many ice chunks sparkling in the sun. The beach landscape is continuously changing. Ice blocks flow into the sea from the lagoon. Some are blown back onto the beach, and others are washed off it again by the tides. The sunshine sparkling through white and clear icebergs against the black sand beach creates a magical landscape.
Vatnajökull glacier is not only the largest ice cap in Europe. It is also larger than all the other glaciers in Europe combined. There are several Glacier walking trips. We haven’t done any as they aren’t suitable for young kids.
Reynisfjara is the best known “Black Beach”. All the beaches along this coast are black, but this one has stunning rock formations against a beautiful mountain backdrop.
The black stone beaches were formed from eroded volcanic rocks. These were formed from lava when it turned black as it cooled and hardened.
When you visit Reynisfjara, please be careful of “sneaker waves”. These disproportionately large coastal waves come without warning. When they pull back away from the beach, they are capable of dragging unfortunate people into the icy waters. A few unfortunates are killed or almost killed this way every few years.
Plane Wreck at Sólheimasandur
In 1973 after a sudden change of weather a US Navy plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black sand margin some way along the coast from the well known “Black Beach.” Luckily everyone survived. Later it turned out that the pilot had simply switched over to the wrong fuel tank.
From the carpark, it is a 4km monotonous walk across a flat, barren black wasteland. With kids, it took us around 1 hour in each direction. The wreck is not so amazing, but it is a picturesque opportunity.
Skógafoss (Forest Waterfall) is one of the largest and most elegant waterfalls in Iceland, it has a width of 25 metres, and the cascade drops 60 metres. The fall generates a lot of sprays – I came quite close to it and got totally wet. On sunny days it makes a rainbow.
You can climb up 575 steps to the top of the cliff above the falls, and see the approaching river running across the plateau.
The Skogar Museum
The Skógar Museum consists of 3 different museums. There is the Open Air Museum, The Folk Museum, and the Technical Museum.
Tickets are ISK 2,000 for adults which gets you admission to all the museums inside and out.
The museum is open June, July, and August from 9 am to 6 pm and for the rest of the year from 10 am to 5 pm.
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall – this 60 metres fall has a hidden track leading behind the falls. In the winter the path can be frozen and difficult. Get ready to get wet.
The site is free to enter; parking is payable.
North of Iceland
We didn’t manage to explore North of Iceland as in winter there is almost no daylight. But we read an interesting article about Road Trip from Akureyri to Reykjavik, so if you in Iceland in the summer time you should definitely visit the North as well.
The Blue Lagoon is the best-known spa in Iceland. Due to its enormous popularity. Booking sessions in advance is essential.
Water in the Blue Lagoon is a blend of sea-water and geothermally heated water rich in silica, minerals and algae. It is all surrounded by lava landscape. Water is very good for your skin. The lagoon water is good, healthy treatment for psoriasis.
The price for a standard Comfort ticket starts at ISK 6,990 or USD 58 per adult but can change depending on the time, season. These are minimal and of course renting any essentials or more customised experiences are extra.
Included in the Comfort is:
Entrance to the Blue Lagoon
Silica mud mask
Use of towel
1st drink of your choice
Free things to do in Iceland in the Winter
Would you think that during your holiday you can wake up every day before the sunrise? Sunrise in December is between 10:30 and 11:30 and if it’s not clouded it’ s a spectacular sight. Because the sun is low for a long time, these sunrises sometimes look more like a sunset. Of course, in midwinter, the two follow each other after in a few hours (depending on how far north you are)
Northern lights in Iceland
You can see the Northern Lights on your own or with Northern Lights tour. The only thing about the tour is that they will take you to place which is away from the light pollution and that they will check the probability of Aurora Borealis and the risk of clouds. You can do this on your own using Aurora app and by driving outside Reykjavik. If you not sure if you see northern Lights you can always use your camera viewfinder which may enhance the light contrast. The best thing is to stop in a dark place, switch off all the lights and keep looking. With time your eyesight will adjust to the darkness and the Northern Lights are easier to see. But to tell the truth, they look better on your photos than in real life, since cameras seem to be more sensitive to them.
Here you can read more about chasing Norther Lights in Iceland.
The best thing to do in Iceland in Winter
Best thing to try when you are in Iceland is geothermal swimming pools. they are all over Reykjavik and in almost every bigger town in Iceland. I believe they are mood and live saver when weather is moody and rainy. you can read about our favourite swimming pool here.
Iceland in December – Conclusion
We have now been here in Iceland for a whole month with another two weeks to go and we love it – the whole experience. However as much as we love and admire the beauty of Iceland, I feel that living here long term would be really challenging due to the constant gloomy rainy weather. Still visiting Iceland in winter was the best idea ever. If you want to learn more strange and interesting facts about Iceland
Great Article good information.
Wow! Love this, if I ever visit Iceland this will be my go to guide! Great post!
Thank you so much, Being so long there we manage to experience everything – and we loved it
Wow this list is so detailed and thorough. I wouldn’t have thought to visit Iceland in the winter but this is making me think it isn’t a bad idea at all. That northern lights is just SPECTACULAR!!!
Thank you, We love Iceland. Winter is probably less harsh by comparison than summer and yes you can see Northern lights – extra bonus
Such great info here! I love how you included free things to do as well 👍🏻
Wow so so much to do even in the dead of winter ! Such a dream place !
I feel that winter is a good time to visit – less tourist, not too cold and you have the possibility to see Northern Lights. But I would love to go there as well in spring and travel all around Iceland